OPINION25 August 2011

The campaign for fruitful error


Businesses must legitimise and encourage failure in a way that generates genuine innovation and eliminates the fear of the unknown, says Anthony Tasgal. After all, “to err is human”.


What’s so bad about being wrong? The French Festival of Error, which took place last year at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, invited people to challenge the received wisdom – or idée reçue – that error is a negative concept. It was designed by a group of academics and employed a mix of workshops and lectures to appeal to a generation of French schoolchildren, who – according to many national commentators – are stuffed with an educational diet that stifles creativity and independent thinking.

A recent radio report by a BBC correspondent in Paris bemoaned the “focus on the absorption, and then reproduction, of a standard corpus of knowledge” rather than the pleasures of independent learning. He bemoans the extent of prescriptive, rote learning: other specialists and intellectuals concur in claiming that their system is creating a generation of children lacking creativity, flexibility of thought and self-confidence.

Too much of our business – from new product development to research – is relentlessly omniscient and positivist. As the American writer Ambrose Bierce once remarked: “Being positive is being mistaken at the top of one’s voice”

This isn’t an affliction unique to the French educational system. It manifests itself within business too. At the 2003 MRS Conference I lamented that we are living in an ‘arithmocracy’: a system that places undue emphasis on numbers, measurement and prediction that subordinates all elements of our life – from the police, health services, and education – to a rigorous system of control that tends to be counter-productive to the very qualities it is intended to foster.

My aim is to reinstate error to its rightful place within business but also the ordinary, workaday lives we lead.

Error: a brief history
The root of the word error – or, to err – comes from the Latin “errare”, meaning to wander. Funny, isn’t it, how we seem to have lost that sense of the word (though erratic and aberration come close) when we look at error so critically.

The business guru Tom Peters openly attacked bosses who didn’t understand or support the idea of failure as part and parcel of business in his 1994 book The Pursuit of Wow. He quoted Wired guru Kevin Kelly from ‘Out of control’, his prognosis of neo-biological culture: honour error, says Kelly, for what is evolution but “systematic error management”. A powerful metaphor and grist to my mill that marketing must act more within the model of biology rather than physics: one where organisms are renowned for complex adaptive behaviour.

Charles Darwin himself made a pronouncement on the virtue of fostering “idle” speculation and false hypotheses. “False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science for they often endure long,” he wrote in The Descent of Man. “But false hypotheses do little harm as everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness; and when this is done one path toward error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened.”

Most business commentators are finally beginning to stress the need to accept failure as part of the drive for innovation, be it with new products or new communication ideas. Risk is only one step away from invention; nothing ventured, nothing gained. And examples of fruitful error abound in the world of marketing.

Viagra, for instance, was developed first as a drug to combat high blood pressure. I also recall from my time working on the advertising account for Peugeot that the man who developed the original European multi-purpose vehicle was an engineer at Peugeot. They rejected the idea (a car like a van?), so he took it to Renault who built the Espace: it became a ground-breaking success selling over 900,000 units in the years following its launch. It also became the spearhead of a whole new approach to the car market: acknowledging that children are important factors in the kind of car one chooses to drive.

Looking for parallels
But still too much of our business – from new product development, to research, advertising testing, measurement and predictions and trends forecasting – is relentlessly omniscient and positivist. Targets are set, targets will be met.

This is seen quite clearly in the way we introduce people to the theory and practice of marketing. I am still quite shocked that this mindset of certainty, a dogmatic Stepford-like thinking and the stigmatisation of error, are all allowed to go largely unchallenged. As the American writer Ambrose Bierce once remarked: “Being positive is being mistaken at the top of one’s voice.”

We must legitimise and encourage fruitful error, so that we can learn from mistakes in a way that generates genuine innovation and eliminates the fear of the unknown. Let’s encourage more speculation and questioning: of the assumptions we have about our market or brand, or about communication or design conventions.

If we follow this approach we are less likely to create homogeneous markets with wallpaper communications that our target audience are likely to ignore, while breeding a spirit of independent thinking.

Here are a few thoughts to ponder:

  1. The “I/we don’t know” response is not necessarily a bad thing. How often in research debriefs or strategic proposals do we openly acknowledge our uncertainty, and openly posit different (conflicting) scenarios?
  2. What I call ‘insightment’ [see Admap Dec. 2004 ] depends on the universal emotion of surprise and the unfamiliar. We need to surprise ourselves more often, without care for the safety net, or what Steve Johnson calls the Least Objectionable Outcome. It’s been the principle behind the renaissance of TV in the US from “Lost” to most of the output of HBO, which wittingly sought out experimental, edgy material which the networks had abandoned in their search for quantity and breadth.
  3. This ties in with the thesis of economist John Kay’s book, “Obliquity”: that things we actively seek like happiness may best be sought indirectly and that often we have to go back to go forward. Maybe doing new research isn’t the answer; it may well be more profitable and surprising to go back and look at what we already have.
  4. In a world where complexity theory and emergence are replacing the ‘billiard ball theory’ of human behaviour, let’s abandon marketing’s obsession with physics envy.
  5. This may mean introspecting, but also looking at our wider community of belief. Any marketing team should understand this phenomenon and take steps to raise the assumptions they have about their company, brand, consumers and the interconnection between them all.
  6. As an antidote to relentless market introspection, may I recommend being more outside in: thinking of human beings first, rather than ‘financial transaction agents’.
  7. If we follow the logic of biology over physics, we should look to develop brands that are based on feelings, personality and what I call emotionalisations rather than a be-all and end-all ‘essence’, with its suggestion of permanence and authoritarian constraint.
  8. The reason, perhaps, it has taken so long for emotion to be the centrepiece of the research world is the industry’s historic and blinkered belief in the supremacy of rationality and of truth over meaning.
  9. Not forgetting the realisation that respondents (aka, all of us) are unreliable witnesses. We are inherent confabulators, our left brain primed to legitimise what is going on in the right brain whether we know it (or like it) or not. In isolation, asking people questions just perpetuates the vicious circle of “same questions, same answers, same solutions”.
  10. Admitting mistakes takes us back to being children; mistakes should be more playful. In fact our spirit should be of combinatorial playfulness, mixing different sources, strategies, contributors and outlooks.

Let us all wander wider and further.

Anthony ‘Tas’ Tasgal is a former ad agency planner who has spent the last ten years running POV, a strategic brand, communications and training consultancy